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Random Thoughts – Discourage Surreal Responses From Children By Making Your Language Foolproof

The next time a child answers a simple maths question with, “My dog’s name is Frazzles”, stop sniggering and start asking the questions in the right way, says Sue Cowley...

  • Random Thoughts – Discourage Surreal Responses From Children By Making Your Language Foolproof

Small children often lose focus and go off at a tangent – it’s part of the job description for being a child.

This is why one of the key skills any new primary teacher has to learn is ‘How not to laugh at a pupil who has just said something incredibly random, but who actually meant it rather seriously.’

For example – you have just finished explaining long division (eloquently) to the class, when little Jimmy puts up his hand. “Yes, Jimmy?” you ask.

“I had hot dogs for tea last night,” Jimmy offers, with a blissful expression on his face. At which point the children roar with laughter and your carefully-planned lesson collapses into chaos.

Like herding kittens

One of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard of teaching small children is that “It’s like herding kittens”. They are remarkably adept at not saying, or doing what you ask for, hope for, or expect. You pose what you feel is a simple question, but the answer you get appears to have come straight from the Planet Zog.

I recently asked one child, “Why do you like this book?” Her answer – “I like it because my mummy comes from Germany, like the lady in that picture”.

Later, I asked another child, “What don’t you like about this book?” His answer – “It has too many words and they are far too small.” Who am I to argue with such piercing logic?

As well as randomly generating thoughts, small children are also prone to hearing only part of an instruction, or misinterpreting your instructions so they hear what they wanted you to say. The moment the words “Today, we’re going to be playing some musical instruments,” come out of your mouth, 30 small children will instantly leap upon said musical instruments like a hoard of rampaging chimpanzees. Teachers very quickly learn to preface every instruction with “When I say go” or “Don’t touch the resources until I say so”.

A similar issue can occur when you’re not specific enough about what you ask for. “Let’s go to assembly” or “It’s time for break” will result in an unseemly scramble for the door.

Similarly, the use of words with multiple meanings should be avoided at all costs. “Pop yourselves on the carpet,” is a prime example – if you say it and all your children start making various “popping” sounds, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Make like Arnie

In order to deal with the vagaries of small children, teachers quickly learn to put control measures in place. The more structures you introduce, the less chance there is that your kittens will scatter willy-nilly around the place.

However, these are small children, so ideally you should avoid a control-freak, sergeant-major, scare-them-into-submission approach. What you want is for the children to act a bit less like kittens, without realising how carefully you are managing their kittenish behaviour.

One great way to do this is to use an imaginative focus for your structures and routines. The film Kindergarten Cop, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, offers the perfect example. In the film, Arnie is a police detective who goes undercover as an infant school teacher.

At first, the children run rings around him, but eventually Arnie gets them under control using the fiction of ‘training’ them as police recruits. By the end of the film they are under his spell, and marching around the school in straight lines that would please the most demanding of Ofsted inspectors.

In a similar vein, I once met a teacher who ran his primary classroom by xylophone. At first I was a little confused, and asked him if this was some fancy new pedagogical technique, but no. When he said “By xylophone”, he really meant “by xylophone”.

At the start of the year he taught his children a series of tunes. One tune meant, ‘Everyone fall silent’, another meant ‘Line up for assembly’, another meant ‘Get the resources out’ and so on. It sounded like The Pied Piper and Pavlov’s dog rolled into one.

To this day, I still imagine him stood at the front of his room, not saying a word, simply playing his xylophone as his children do exactly what the tune tells them. Quite how he came up with this idea, I haven’t a clue. But what this story amply demonstrates is this – teachers can be even better at random thought generation than their children.

Sue Cowley’s book about her family’s adventures in learning while travelling, Road School, will be published later this year

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